"Dura lex, sed lex [the law is harsh, but it is the law]," says François Lochon, the director of the Gamma Rapho photo agency, in answer to BJP's enquiries. Lochon's response came 24 hours after a French court of justice ruled that photographer Marie-Laure de Decker would have to pay €10,000 in legal fees for wasting Lochon's time.
At the heart of the case are 770 of de Decker's images, which are still housed within Gamma's archives. "I've spent 40 years with Gamma," the photographer tells BJP in a phone interview. "When the agency went under a few years back, I asked for my pictures to be returned. I had always paid for my films and my prints, so these images were always mine."
At that time, says the photographer, Gamma admitted it had lost all of de Decker's colour images, so, in 2009, a court ruled that the agency should pay €1m in compensation. "The judge arrived at that number by taking into account the number of rolls I had brought to the agency over the years, with the assumption that each roll featured two images."
The following year, however, Lochon acquired the agency without its debt. "I wasn't paid for the films they had lost," says de Decker, who contacted Lochon at the time to ask "if, by any chance, he had some of my images".
She adds: "He wrote me a letter to let me know that he had 770 scans of my images on his desk and that he would get a team to look through the archives to find the original prints and send them back to me." A year went by and de Decker had still not received the images.
When in 2012 Paris Match published a tribute to Dalida to mark the 25th anniversary of her death, de Decker posted on her Facebook page two images she had taken of the French singer years earlier. "I used screengrabs I had made from the Gamma website when I used to be at the agency," she says. "Since I didn't have any of my original prints, I used these small scans."
And so, when she asked her lawyer to sue Lochon for his failure to return her images, Gamma's solicitors came to court with the scans of the two Dalida images she had posted on Facebook. "They returned these two images to me, so the court found that I had wasted Lochon's time with my lawsuit and that I should pay for his legal fees," which amounted to €5000.
The photographer appealed, and lost once more with the court finding that it was not in a position to rule on the facts of the case. "Yet since I had inconvenienced Lochon once more, I should pay an additional €5000."
Speaking to BJP, Lochon disputes the facts. "We only possess old scans, and they are ours," he tells BJP in a series of emails. "The judges said twice that 'the scan of an argentic picture belongs to the agency that [produced it] and paid for it'."
He adds: "There are many legal precedents establishing that scans belong to the agency."
The court also found that while Lochon had promised to return all of de Decker's original prints if found in Gamma's archives, the agency had not committed itself to returning the digital scans of these images. Lochon, in fact, argues that he had asked de Decker to help by sending a list of subjects she had covered in her career. That request, claims Lochon, was left unanswered, with de Decker assuming that the search had never taken place.
Now the photographer is faced with a €10,000 fine she says she can't pay. BJP understands that a committee of friends and colleagues is moving forward with a print sale to help the photographer. And, in another twist, de Decker tells BJP that, this morning, her lawyer received a call from Gamma's representatives offering "to erase my debt if I come back to work for Gamma". If she refuses, she claims, Gamma will send bailiffs to her home.
"I can't comment on anything other than the judges' ruling," says Lochon.
Photographers wishing to help or participate in the upcoming print sale have been invited to get in touch with de Decker.
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